Pros and Cons of Stem Cell Research

researcher using a microscope to look at cell with the cell image on a nearby computer screen.
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Debates over the ethics of embryonic stem cell research have divided scientists, politicians, and religious groups for years.

However, promising developments in other areas of stem cell research have led to solutions that help bypass these ethical barriers and win more support from those against embryonic stem cell research; the newer methods don't require the destruction of blastocysts.

Many parties continue to have strong opinions that trigger ongoing debates about stem cell research, and the following pros and cons provide a snapshot of some the points on each side of the issue.

Benefits of Stem Cell Research

The excitement about stem cell research is primarily due to the medical benefits in areas of regenerative medicine and therapeutic cloning. Stem cells provide huge potential for finding treatments and cures to a vast array of medical issues:

Different diseases—including cancers, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and more—can be treated with stem cells by replacing damaged or diseased tissue. This can include neurons that might affect neurological diseases and even entire organs that need to be replaced.

There is endless potential for scientists to learn about human growth and cell development from studying stem cells. For example, by studying how stem cells develop into specific types of cells, scientists potentially could learn how to treat or prevent relevant ailments.

One of the areas of potential is embryonic treatment. This stage of pregnancy is when many birth defects or other potential issues begin. Studying embryonic stem cells possibly could lead to a better understanding of how embryos develop and maybe even lead to treatments that can identify and address potential problems.

Because the cells can replicate at a high rate, a limited number of initial cells eventually can grow into a much greater number to be studied or used in treatment.

Pros

  • Medical benefits such as regenerating organ tissue and therapeutic cell cloning

  • May hold the answer to curing various diseases, including Alzheimer's, certain cancers and Parkinson's

  • Research potential for human cell growth and development to treat a variety of ailments

  • Possibility of use for embryonic treatment

  • Requires only a small number of cells because of the fast replication rate

Cons

  • The difficulty of obtaining stem cells and the long period of growth required before use

  • Unproven treatments often come with high rejection rates

  • Cost can be prohibitive for many patients

  • Ethical controversy over use of stem cells from lab-fertilized human eggs

  • Additional ethical issues regarding the creation of human tissues in a lab, such as cloning

Disadvantages of Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research presents problems like any form of research, but most opposition to stem cell research is philosophical and theological, focusing on questions of whether we should be taking science this far:

It's not easy to obtain stem cells. Once harvested from an embryo, stem cells require several months of growth before they can be used. Obtaining adult stem cells, such as from bone marrow, can be painful.

As promising as the field is, stem cell treatments still are unproven, and they often have high rejection rates.

The cost also can be prohibitive for many patients, with a single treatment costing well into the thousands of dollars, as of 2018.

The use of embryonic stem cells for research involves the destruction of blastocysts formed from laboratory-fertilized human eggs. For those who believe that life begins at conception, the blastocyst is a human life, and to destroy it is unacceptable and immoral.

A similar theological problem is an idea of creating living tissue in a laboratory and whether that represents humans taking on the role of God. This argument also applies to the potential for human cloning. For those who believe God created people, the prospect of people creating people is troublesome.

Background on Stem Cell Research

Graphic showing How Stem Cells Progress includes a dividing cell and specialized cells.
The Balance/Miguel Co

In 1998, the first published research paper on the topic reported that stem cells could be taken from human embryos. Subsequent research led to the ability to maintain undifferentiated stem cell lines (pluripotent cells) and techniques for differentiating them into cells specific to various tissues and organs.

The debates over the ethics of stem cell research began almost immediately in 1999, despite reports that stem cells cannot grow into complete organisms.

In 2000–2001, governments worldwide were beginning to draft proposals and guidelines to control stem cell research and the handling of embryonic tissues and reach universal policies. In 2001, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) drafted a list of recommendations for stem cell research. In the U.S., the Clinton administration drafted guidelines for stem cell research in 2000. Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries followed suit and formulated their own policies.

Debates over the ethics of studying embryonic stem cells continued for nearly a decade until the use of adult-derived stem cells—known as induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs)—became more prevalent and alleviated those concerns.

In the U.S. since 2011, federal funds can be used to study embryonic stem cells, but such funding cannot be used to destroy an embryo.

Alternatives to Embryonic Stem Cells

Use of adult-derived stem cells—known as induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs)—from blood, cord blood, skin, and other tissues have been demonstrated as effective in treating different diseases in animal models. Umbilical cord-derived stem cells obtained from the cord blood also have been isolated and used for various experimental treatments. Another option is uniparental stem cells. Although these cell lines are shorter-lived than embryonic cell lines, uniparental stem cells hold vast potential if enough research money can be directed that way: pro-life advocates do not technically consider them individual living beings.

Recent Developments

Two recent developments from stem cell research involve the heart and the blood it pumps. In 2016, researchers in Scotland began working on the possibility of generating red blood cells from stem cells in order to create a large supply of blood for transfusions. A few years earlier, researchers in England began working on polymers derived from bacteria that can be used to repair damaged heart tissue.